Thriving in the Middle

EIB pinning

The Army’s EIB (Expert Infantryman Badge) “forced march” is daunting. With full pack and weapon, a soldier set out to complete the twelve-mile journey in less than 3 hours as part of the testing to earn the proficiency badge for the infantryman’s craft.

I was never an infantryman, but this “twelve-mile ruck march” was adopted by several other training courses I participated in as a way to test physical and mental toughness. The physical element test is self-evident…but let’s take a moment to explore the mental test and see how it applies in other areas of our lives.

On my first EIB March, I can say that there was great enthusiasm at the onset and the last few hundred yards also bolstered enthusiasm within. Where the difficulty resides is in the middle. Somewhere after the first six miles or so, the road begins to drone on forever and the pain in your body appears to be more prevalent. It is in this difficult “middle” that the mental test reveals itself. A battle rages in the mind of the soldier to succumb to the throbbing feelings in the back, legs, and feet…or to press forward. Pressing forward is not complicated but it requires mental toughness. Simply stated, to work through the middle requires one to intentionally continue placing one foot in front of the other.

EIB Badge

Step, then step, then step, then step. This is the recipe for overcoming the middle. Some guys create games to focus their minds such as developing a cadence in their head. Some will simply focus on another soldier and the interval between them. Others will work on counting off paces along the way. Whatever mental game is implemented, the task is to put one foot in front of the other and then to repeat.

Life in general is like this too. Church life (my present reality) also bears these characteristics. In recent days, I’ve watched several people I love simply lose focus in the middle. They struggle to attend faithfully. They struggle with their personal devotion time. They struggle with fulfilling obligations made to teams and committees. They, frankly, are in the middle of the march. Some of those, experience teaches, will fall away. Some will think the problem is the “march” they are in and will look for other marches (churches) to join. Others will just focus on the throbbing in their legs and sit on the side of the road waiting on the pick-up truck to carry them back to the rally point where they will tell the many reasons why they needed to stop and try again some other times.

But…and this is huge…some will simply put one foot in front of the other and repeat.

Where is the motivation to continue the march?  Friend, that is the part of the test that demonstrates mental toughness. It is individual and personal. At the same time, there are a few aids that seem to be common with everyone who presses through to the finish line:

  • Don’t forget WHY you started. The Infantryman doesn’t want to march, he wants the proficiency badge and the honor that goes with it.
  • Don’t focus on the pain. Feet and legs throb in the march. I get it. Focus though on the terrain or the interval to the next “soldier” ahead of you. Paul instructs us in this when he says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
  • Eliminate “other marches” from your field of consideration. All marches in life have a middle. They all test mental toughness. If you quit this one, your future ones will be that much harder, even if you change marches.
  • Remember those around you. Yep, you became part of a team when you started. Someone loved you, cared for you, and encouraged you through your difficulties. If nothing else, defer to your sense of loyalty to the group and put one foot in front of the other. Failure to do so will be a thorn in your side eventually and will serve to discourage the “family of marchers” that loved you to the point where you are.

You can finish. One foot in front of the other. Step, EIB Finish 2then step, then step…

Grace and Peace…and finish the march.

Light, The Cross, and Renewed Purpose

Light, The Cross, and Renewed Purpose

Symbols have served the church as powerful teaching tools for hundreds of years. Whether it was the Stations of the Cross, or the Gospel depicted in stained glass, pictures and symbols provide rich imagery that helps the gospel come alive in the minds of the parishioner.

This past week, several men in the church I serve put in the sweat equity to make such a symbol come alive for us. For a number of years, we have discussed how to get a new cross as a focal point in our church services. With limited budgets and no shortage of ideas, we set out to prayerfully consider how to best do so. We wanted to tie in our baptistry space. We wanted the cross to be prominent. We wanted to have something new but that reminded us of the free-standing cross we displayed in our worship space at many points of the year.

We discussed accent walls with stone, tile, murals…you name it. Then we landed on the current design. It seemed only fitting to explain a bit of what the different parts mean to us.

img_3480First is the cross. While we don’t worship the cross, it does bear theological prominence. We recognize that the cross is, by design, an instrument of death, but it is on the cross that our Lord and Savior bled and died to provide us eternal life (John 3:16). He completely satisfied the just penalty for our sins (1 John 2:2) when he died on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago.

Furthermore, our cross is empty. It is empty because Jesus completed the substitutionary atonement and no longer has need to occupy the cross. We know that in some church traditions, Jesus is still visible on the cross. We reject this understanding because we believe that Christ’s atoning work has already been accomplished and does not need repeating.

In addition, our cross is stained, meaning that we did not wish to cover over the wood with paint to make it more attractive. The color one sees comes as wet stain soaked into the wooden cross, much the same way that the Lord’s blood stained the cross he was crucified on.

Additionally, there is a light behind the cross which reminds us that Christ came as light into the world (John 1:9). Light is powerful and enlightens man to see Christ through the darkness. Light always triumphs over darkness.

Finally, the cross is set against a backdrop of wood. This wood was created for a purpose and was then discarded. It is reclaimed “pallet wood.” The wood is imperfect.  No two pieces are exactly alike. Some still have splinters. Some still bear the holes where nails had previously been driven. Each piece was reclaimed from its discarded state to be fashioned to fit together with other discarded pieces until there was perfect coverage on the wall. Part of what made the wood useful again was the application of stain, just as with the cross.

In these pieces of reclaimed wood, we find a picture of ourselves as the church. We are all different. We were created for a purpose but due to our sin, we were suitable only to be discarded; that is, until Christ and the cross shone forth light into the darkness of our existence. Each of us were reclaimed and covered with stain that penetrated into us and revealed our character. Then, in the hands of a master craftsman, we were fashioned and placed back into service.

When you see the cross above our baptistry at Calvary, do not think that it is just another accent wall and religious decoration. It is, instead, a symbolic representation of reclaimed lives with renewed purpose because of a loving Savior, a Cross, and light shining into darkness.

Should “normal people” study theology?

Bible, study (2)A former professor of mine once said, “If churches did a better job at teaching the Bible, I’d have much less to do here at Bible College.” Now before you discount the statement as some flippant remark or a veiled complaint about working conditions, hear how he defined it.

Many churches have professionally trained ministers and leaders who pour over the Scriptures to prepare well crafted lessons ready for application in a person’s life. This is not bad; rather, it is a key element of the homiletic process…in other words, we teach pastors to do this very thing in preaching.

But, as I am suggesting in the article, there is there a need for the “people” to wrestle with the difficulties and work toward their own convictions on theological truths.

What I Am Not Saying

  • I am not advocating that every believer become an expert on Ancient Near East literature or the fine tenets of every facet of theological musing.
  • I am not advocating that every believer become an expert on the top five non-Christian world religions.
  • I am not advocating a dismissal of pastoral ministry and teaching. We have and need pastors who are well trained and able to guard the congregation from error while leading them to maturity in the faith, which necessarily includes teaching the church to think for itself on theological matters.

As an example, we are not all medically trained. When something is amiss in the body, we seek out a doctor (hopefully) who has given her life to medical studies. We SHOULD though…have a working knowledge of how the heart and lungs work and be able to recognize that a persistent cough or headache is not the body’s original design.

What I Am Advocating…and Why

To credit the man who first planted the thought in my mind, what Dr. Wilbanks was saying was that many churches failed to promote or expect the “people” to study and know the basics of core doctrine and a general framework of our faith.

Yesterday, I promoted a particular book on a specific theological truth in my message on the Incarnation. Bruce Ware’s book, The Man Christ Jesus, was a particularly helpful resource in the discussion on the Incarnation of Christ. The Incarnation itself is a “big deal” and a distinguishing doctrine in the cacophony of religious traditions. Even if the “people” are not experts in the doctrine, there is an implicit and practical need to become conversant with the main points. Why? So that you can speak of it to others, be encouraged in your faith, and recognize error when presented by others.

The example of the Bereans comes to mind from Acts 17:10-12 where we are told that the church (1) heard the teaching, (2) and examined the Scriptures daily, (3) to see if the teachings were true.

What Tools are ESSENTIAL for our Preparation? 

This is the subject of another posting, but in general, for the person setting out on the journey for the first time here are six tools:

  • Regular attendance in congregational and small-group teaching. (You cannot grow apart from exposure to truth). I cannot overemphasize this!
  • A good Study Bible. These resources typically have introductory material that helps set the stage for understanding.
  • Supplemental reading from a good Introduction to Doctrine resource like Grudem’s Introduction to Systematic Theology.
  • A survey resource on the Old and New Testament. (more on that later).
  • Some select charts and maps (a timeline of biblical history and a map of the biblical lands is very helpful for understanding.
  • A general word study resource. These are readily available online. A good resource is the Word Study Bible.

Again, more on these in another post but a couple of thoughts for reflection:

  • Are you a student of God’s Word and biblical  doctrine?
  • When is the last time you chased down a biblical truth for yourself, apart from a Sunday School lesson you were teaching?
  • Do you know more about your favorite sport or sports team, political party, or “Brad and Jen’s life” than you do God’s instructions?

If you have thoughts on the subject or particular tools you use and recommend, share them in the comments and thanks for dropping by.